E-mail vs. RSS

June 9 2004

Since my brief appearance at Inbox 2004 last week, I've been thinking a lot about one of the hot debate topics from the conference -- e-mail vs. RSS.  It seems that there is a school of thought that e-mail is dead or approaching death, because the sheer volume overwhelms, or the signal to noise ratio is low (spam, newsletters, useless cc:-the-world exercises), or it's not fast enough, or whatever.  And some suggest that RSS is the logical and perfect and nirvana-esque replacement for e-mail -- Steve Gillmor over at eWeek has been particularly vocal on this point.  So the question came up on the panel I was on at Inbox last week of how we view this whole RSS vs. e-mail thing, as it apparently did many times over at the conference.
It feels to me that RSS is just about to hit the peak of the hype cycle, after which we will all realize that it is an interesting and useful protocol but not a paradigm shift.  Even the attempts to make it better (RSS2, Atom, etc) are not going to make RSS out to be some kind of lingua franca of the future the way e-mail is (or was?).  The more I've thought about it, the more unconvinced I am that RSS is or should be viewed as the game changer....

  • RSS adoption is a on a maturing path.  Every day, I encounter more RSS feeds that might be useful.  The more sites that add feeds, the more time I spend in my reader (which happens to be a Notes database).  But it could easily get to the point where I spend an hour a day reading RSS feeds -- on top of the hours I spend reading and processing e-mail.  Where did that time come from?
  • RSS is a completely unfiltered process.  While some readers (such as the one I use) have the ability to categorize your feeds, ultimately, something new coming in from joebobsblog.com appears on equal footing with the headline from BBC.co.uk indicating that Ronald Reagan has died.  E-mail has evolved over the years to have rules, agents, content filtering, prioritization, mood stamps, sender-based color highlighting, etc. -- all of which could be added to RSS readers.  But then how would that differ from e-mail so much?
  • RSS is succeeding now because of trust.  I add feeds to my reader from sites I'm interested in, or in some cases need to do my job effectively.  What happens the day the humans on the other end of that feed change the rules?  I don't think it has happened yet, but when eWeek or Network World or a blogger decide that RSS would be a great push medium for advertising, the game is over.  We'll spend the same countelss hours trying to separate wheat from chaff in RSS readers that we all already do in e-mail.  You might say - well just delete the feed at that point.  Sure, but what if the other 90% of that feed's content was important to you?  Now what?
Don't get me wrong -- I think the introduction of RSS has been a huge positive for the web and for content.  But these heated debates over whether it is revolution or evolution don't really get me going like they do some others.  I think RSS and e-mail both will be around for a long time -- and that e-mail is far from done evolving yet.
You might also be interested in reading Christopher Knight's 22 Reasons why email is not dead.  One of his assertions helped shape my thinking on this topic over the last week -- "How many days before spammers invade and turn the RSS world upside down because it does not meet their needs?"  Very thorough and reasoned essay, check it out.

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